An Atheist Reads The Bible: Talking Out Its Ass

In my last post I skipped over one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible (though I’m saying this so often it’s starting to lose meaning). Considering the last post dealt with genocide, I didn’t want to confuse the theme and I ran out of space. But I felt this story is too good to ignore (the title alone is worth it) so I figure I might as well write a post about it.

So the story begins in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers when Balak, the King of the Moabites, noticed that the Israelites were exterminating everyone they came across. Not wanting to be wiped off the face of the Earth, Balak does the only thing he can, which is to call for a priest named Balaam (with such similar names this might get a bit confusing). Apparently everything that Balaam blesses is blessed and if he curses someone, they will be destroyed.

However, what happens next is surprising. God comes to Balaam and tells him not to curse the Israelites. This is a special moment, because it is the first time in the Bible that God has appeared to someone other than the Israelites or their ancestors. One of the (many) things the Bible offers no explanation for is why God is supposed to be the God of all people, but only appears to one tiny tribe. No explanation is ever given as to why God doesn’t spread out and convince the whole world, which he could apparently do if he wanted. Had he done so he could have avoided the bloodshed and genocide of the previous chapters. Why didn’t God appear to Pharaoh or the Amorites? Wouldn’t it have been easier and more loving to convince them of a peaceful solution rather than massacring thousands?

Anyway, God tells Balaam not to go to Balak. So he refuses the first messenger but Balak sends messengers a second time. God gives Balaam permission to go, but tells Balaam to do everything he tells him. However, literally two sentences later God gets angry with Balaam for going, despite initially giving permission. God decides that the most appropriate way to deal with this is to send an angel with a sword to kill Balaam (what do believers make of these stories? How can they see a loving God in all this pointless cruelty?). For some reason only the donkey that Balaam is riding can see the angel so he turns away to avoid it. Balaam gets angry and starts hitting the donkey. Three times (of course it’s three times) the donkey turns away and three times Balaam hits him.

As if the story was strange enough, at this point God gives the donkey the ability to talk. The donkey then asks Balaam why he is hitting him, they argue for a bit and then God reveals the angel to Balaam. The angel tells Balaam that he would have killed him if the donkey hadn’t turned away from the path. Balaam offers to return home, but the angel tells him to keep going but to only do what he says (the angel and God seem to be the same person).

Let’s take a moment to figure out what just happened but there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. Why can donkeys see angels? Why did the donkey need to speak? Could it continue talking after the angel left? Did Balaam and his talking donkey go on a series of adventures that become the inspiration for the Shrek movies? How could God’s plan be so easily foiled by a slow moving donkey? Is it a good thing that God’s plan to kill Balaam failed? If so why did he plan it in the first place? Did God have any reason at all to want to kill Balaam or does he just kill for the fun of it? To be honest the story reads like a silly children’s story rather than anything with theological significance.

This gives the whole bizarre situation more dignity than I feel it merits

This gives the whole bizarre situation more dignity than I feel it merits

So Balaam eventually meets King Balak and prepares a sacrifice to curse the Israelites. However, in a shocking plot twist (not really) Balaam declares he cannot curse the Israelites as God is on their side. Three times (of course) he is asked to curse the Israelites but instead blesses them and predicts that they will destroy all the other nations. Then, without any explanation, everyone goes home and the story ends.

Now it should be obvious that this story didn’t really happen (how could the Israelites know if they weren’t there?). It’s clear that they invented the story to give justification to their destruction of the cities and claim that God had prophesised it (Interestingly, the Bible acts as though Balaam really did have magical powers and that had he cursed the Israelites, his curse would have come true). This story is effectively a piece of propaganda that the Israelites used to claim that God was on their side.

It does raise the interesting question as to why God almost never tries to speak to non-Israelites. Why is the creator of the universe limited to only one insignificant tribe? What makes him any different to the thousands of other tribal gods that were worshipped at the time? If God appeared to all people in the world, that would be solid evidence for his existence, that he only appears to one tribe, makes him seem like something they made up themselves. Why does God not tell all the people of the world about the rules he wants them to follow? Why does he not punish everyone for disobedience?

The talking ass doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, but perhaps it’s a metaphor for the whole Bible.

You might have noticed that this blog post is shorter than the other posts in the series so far. I would be interested in hearing some feedback on what you think. So far, I only get comments from less than 1% of my readers so most of the time I have no idea what you think of my blog (hence the name). Do you want the posts to be shorter or longer, more or less serious, more detailed or covering more ground? Let me know in a comment and/or on the new Facebook page and Twitter. For the rest of the series of An Atheist Reads The Bible, see here.


Filed under Religion

25 responses to “An Atheist Reads The Bible: Talking Out Its Ass

  1. Pingback: An Atheist Reads The Bible | Whistling In The Wind

  2. I was fine with the old post length. I like how you read so thoroughly. Also, you didn’t mention the Deir Alla (Succoth-on-the-Jordan) inscription from the eighth century BC.

  3. drakodoc

    I think the length of the posts are perfect. This one was shorter, dealing as it was with just a single story of a talking donkey, incompetent angel, nervous king, and a jealous bronze age deity.
    I have enjoyed all your efforts in this project and look forward to more! I have already read most of the bible (as have many atheists), but it has been awhile, and this is a great refresher of how much ridiculousness is in this work of epic fantasy.

  4. What a truly silly story. I wish you got comments from Christians on these posts explaining how they can believe it all.

    Your longer posts were good but more of a commitment. I usually only stick to reading posts of around 500 words, so this is certainly easier to get through.

  5. parentsfriend

    Well most Torah stories are not to be understood just as written, but discussed and understood on not by also studying multiple commentaries. Let me tell you the Jewish perspective on why God spoke to just one small tribe. The most accepted interpretation is that all other tribes were asked to work with God to bring order to the world, but only the Jews agreed to do so.

    I think your understanding would be enriched and not so mocking if you debated some of the stories with a Torah scholar. I am not one, I do study Torah with a number of highly educated Jews and will tell you when thought about and interpreted most are cautionary tales that get at the root of human behavior.

    One interpretation of the story is this: …the story is included in the Torah as a polemic against the worldview of Balaam and the pagans. While Balaam thinks he may compete with God in a contest, the Jewish reading of each of God’s encounters with Balaam is obvious. God is in control as He has always been, and He instructs Balaam not to go with the dignitaries. However, God has also granted free will, so if Balaam wants to go, God will let him. Balaam misunderstands his freewill as the possibility to “beat” God.

    Notice I said one interpretation for as the saying is goes “Two Rabbis – twelve interpretations”

    • And the interpretations are to be reinterpreted as needs require. I mean no disrespect but it sounds like people sitting around say “Hey, Murray, I got an idea!” until one of them comes up with an interpretation that pleases the others and then they slough off the ones that didn’t work and continue on with the one that “did.” Again, the “interpretations” are also just made up, constrained by little but imagination.

    • “The most accepted interpretation is that all other tribes were asked to work with God to bring order to the world, but only the Jews agreed to do so.”

      But then why does the Bible not say this? Is it not odd that not a single other tribe accepted God? There are tens of thousands, why did only one accept God? Could he not impress them? Were there not even some individuals in the tribes who were convinced?

      “I think your understanding would be enriched and not so mocking if you debated some of the stories with a Torah scholar.”

      Unfortunately Ireland doesn’t have that great of a supply of Torah scholars (or Jews in general) that I could discuss with.

      “He instructs Balaam not to go with the dignitaries.”

      But he gave Balaam permission to go, but then tried to kill him when he did. What sort of free will is that?

      • Suze's Lullabies

        And the most likely “interpretation” (which correlates best with historical facts) is that god didn’t ask any other tribes because god was a mere construct of this tribe….

  6. I have been reading up on the early Christian apologists (Origen, et. al.) and some of them claimed that when you go to the parts of scripture that make no sense at all, that is where you need your beer goggles, er, your ability to mediate on scripture and learn to interpret the “hidden” meaning behind the ludicrous stories. After reading their “interpretations” of some of this problematic writings, it is clear hat their imaginations were no more clear that the scripture and they were just making shite up.

  7. It’s not true that God talks only to Jews. If you follow the U.S. politics, you know that he talks to every other Republican presidential candidate.

  8. First thought: I like the length. I tend to think of blogs as good for a couple thousand words. If things get too long, it’s better to split them up into smaller posts, each dealing with a part of the greater whole.

    It is a strange story, suggesting that a foreign priest blessed the Israelites. It comes from an Elohist source, but I think the very thoughts of various priestly clans with their own stories gives a way of looking at this.

    To digress: the Exodus story intertwines account from the Aaronide priesthood (“Aaron is the founder of the priesthood”) and the Mushite priesthood (“Moses is the founder of the priesthood”), so focus in Exodus bounces between the two. (In the end, Joshua needed the support of the Aaronide priests and their city, Jerusalem, so they became the chief priestly clan.)

    If we look at this as a history in which occasionally alliances are made with divergent groups and a syncretic religion is formed, we could have a foreign priest (let’s call him Balaam) who at one point in his life is decrying the Israelites and their priesthood, only to later find himself an influential figure in a merged priesthood.

    As for comments: you do better than I do.

    • Normally I aim for 1,500 words as a normal length of a post (give or take 250 words) but a lot of these Bible posts have been hitting 2,000 words.

      There’s definitely signs of mixing in these stories.

      As for your comments, I suppose its hard to comment on news or history as people probably don’t feel strongly either way or feel they have much to add to the topic.

  9. I will speak for myself. Blog posts that go beyond 800 words for me are too long and especially if it something about the bible, then I think it is an overkill.
    I have no problem with the title of the blog.
    The writing is good, always good actually. And you raise very important questions in most of the posts.
    When you write on economics, those posts can be slightly longer.
    That is my honest two cents. Anytime I see you have a post on the bible and it is 2k words long, I am most likely to look for the next blog.

  10. I value the longer posts but an occasional short post such as this lends punch, especially when treating an individual digression or oddity. The occasional short post also lightens your work load and lets you proceed with your reading. Many thanks for this wonderful series! It refreshes my knowledge of the old testament, brings smiles, and increases my valuing of this infuriating, puzzling, and at moments even moving syncretic jumble of fragmentary tales. One suggestion, however, please dispel your amazement that the god(s) of the old testament is/are not the god of love and the universal god, these are anachronisms cast backwards onto the text. The god(s) of the first books of the old testament is/are not loving but arbitrary, capricious, imperfect, ill-formed, and inconsistent, not unlike most people and not unlike life itself.

  11. I am a new De-convert. We went to church and this was the topic. No lie, it was sooooooooooo hard to not stand up and yell, “are you kidding me??!! I’m supposed to believe this donkey started talking and Balaam didn’t freak out?” And, omg so many other problems with the whole story. It’s amazing to sit and listen to a sermon with my blinders off.

    1. Balaam is cool with a talking donkey
    2. How can an animal with no soul see the angel but Balaam couldn’t and Balaam had been working out a deal with God to see Balak
    3. God “oks” Balaam to see Balak, but gets pissed when he leaves. The preacher used the whole wife scenario…. When you ask your wife to stay and watch a game instead of going to the family get together… Then you’re screwed because now your wife is mad cuz u watched the game. So I’m thinking, God is acting like an irrational woman??
    4. Balaam is a false prophet, not because his prophecies are wrong, in fact they were all right (especially curses) but because he didn’t do them for God. So, that means these modern prophets scaring the hell out off my family with the US is going to be destroyed, the US is Babylon… They are real prophets, even if none of this crap comes true, but because they are doing it in God’s name.
    5. If God allowed the donkey to see the angel and finally allowed Balaam to see after he beat the shit out of the donkey the times.. Why not let Balaam see the angel the first time so the poor ass didn’t get kicked!!???

    Anyway, I had to Google to see if others really thought the donkey was talking, and yes, they do!!! Wtf!!!! (that’s how I found your blog)

  12. Suze's Lullabies

    Just come across your interesting blog. Thank you very much for these valuable reviews. As for me, I love reading, so I’d prefer longer posts, more thoroughgoing…
    Just keep on…

  13. Pingback: Balaam – Bible as Literature

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